It's noon on a midsummer Saturday in a camp of the church of cheer, and eight million blades of grass are about to die. For the next four days, UC Irvine’s Mesa Court Field will be pounded and pulped by the feet of 350 cheerleaders. Shouts are going to rise over it from 8:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. Tumblers are going to tumble over it. Jumpers are going to spring up, touch their toes, and land on it. Boys are going to fling girls 30 feet above it and catch them just before they fall on it. Two stretchers are going to roll over it, and a paramedic from the fire department is going to complain that a foam mat should be placed upon it.
But for now the grass is as green as the Poway High School cheerleading skirts. The first simultaneous shout for the sake of shouting is about to rise up. From a point inside the volcano of girls (who’ve come from Poway, Clairemont, El Cajon, Solana Beach, Carlsbad, Chula Vista, and points as distant as Arizona and Texas), the cheer will make your skin vibrate. The girls outnumber the boys 340 to 10.
“Is that all the noise you can make?” a staff cheerleader asks.
Of course not. More vibrations, more uplifted hands, as if volume were increased by height. A scream that fuses the vowels O and Ah is followed by a scream that fuses ear tissue. The roars and echoes can be heard for blocks, like the aftermath of touchdowns or the hoof beats of the Mongol horde. But there’s no game, no battle, no war — just cheer. Girls are launched all over the field. Girls go up, girls come down.
Usually, they keep one foot on a lower girl and reach for heaven. But sometimes they hurtle up. On the fourth and last day of cheerleading camp, two Chula Vista boys will clench hands, turn them into a spring under the feet of a standing girl, and she’ll leave the earth entirely. Nothing behind her but sky, nothing below her but earth and boys. In the high point of flight she’ll touch her toes, whip her arms to her sides, fall hard and fast towar them, and be caught a few feet above the surface of the hard yellow grass.
The basket toss, a move in which girl becomes shuttlecock, is one of the first stunts cheerleaders see when they come to a Universal Cheerleading Association elite camp. Between June 3 and August 16, UCA will hold 637 general cheerleading camps at 360 colleges, high schools, and middle schools from Spokane to Tallahassee. More than 100,000 girls and a smattering of boys will attend them.
Only 6 percent of these camps are “elite,” meaning they teach advanced stunts to the growing number of squads who compete for regional, state, and national titles and to squads who want, for the sheer acrobatic pleasure of it, to achieve high altitude. Camp thus begins with the question, “How many of y’all like to tumble?” and a human fireworks display. The cheerleading staff, it turns out, didn’t come here to pass on the secrets of spelling DEFENSE. They came to tumble, hoist, flip, and toss. They came to make pinwheels of girls in blue-and-white uniforms and to be those whirling pin-wheels. The women fly and the men, who look like weight lifters in tennis shorts, catch them. The men can also flip themselves neatly backward.
The dozen or so staff cheerleaders are good-looking wholesome people who got this job the same way they made cheerleading back in high school — through tryouts. The demand for cheerleading camps is so high that UCA, which is one of two big names in the cheerleading business, holds about 70 tryouts to select 1200 summer acrobats, who are usually college cheerleaders. Like a roving circus troupe, they cheer at one camp after another, moving from school to school and dorm to dorm. Everything they wear, from sweat suit to sports bra, is a uniform that says UCA in tackle twill lettering, but they don’t travel as a unit. They’re part of the larger UCA team, in which the players are interchangeable.
Most will stay in the West this summer, and the ones who’ve been doing it for two or three years know which state has the worst cafeteria food (Arizona) and which school has the best (UCIA). The Irvine camp is small compared to those held in the South. At Louisiana State University, enrollment can be 1250.
This particular staff plays against stereotype. It has few blondes. Thomas is black. Huck is Asian, and so are Vanessa, Kelly, and Nancy, who will later take the grandstand and joke that the campers are about to learn from the Asian Persuasion and do some brown funk. Among the males, no one is not hearty.
Among the females, no one is not pretty, and no one is not friendly. Perhaps because friendliness is the chief American virtue, the twin of cheer, it’s hard not to be charmed by their beaming and grinning and joking and hamming. They’re physically good at happiness. When Big Jim lifts Kelly in one hand, he trembles like the strongman in the circus. He’s big and she’s four foot ten. He can put her on a pedestal — can be her pedestal. He can make her a spire, a steeple, a flag. From her position high above us all, she smiles merrily and points straight up. Like all good feats, it looks smooth and impossible. It looks as if grace is all you need.
At Big Jim’s feet, the cheerleaders of Poway, as well as Horizon Christian, Granite Hills, Carlsbad, Eastlake, and Santa Fe Christian, watch and learn. Some schools, such as Carlsbad, send their show squad of 20 girls to camp, “show” meaning the same thing it does when applied to dogs and horses. A show squad exists for competition, not to cheer at games, although some girls will also elect to cheer for varsity football. Poway girls may or may not compete locally this year, but they don’t have a special squad for it. This gives them an old-fashioned nonchalance. They giggle more, collapse more often, and loiter casually between stunts. While the squads from Carlsbad and Eastlake train as if the Olympics were tomorrow, the Poway girls train as if they wanted to stretch out time, be 16 forever, and do a good pyramid come September.
Which doesn’t mean they’re indifferent to success. The junior varsity girls aren’t insouciant yet. They’re still a little awed by their chosen-ness, by the fact that they’ll be cheerleaders next year, that they’ll have uniforms and friends and happiness. When they stand in a line to learn boogie chants and herkies, when they clap their hands together in that peculiar cupping way, they concentrate the way they did when they tried out in the Poway High School gym the day before Easter. On that morning, 65 girls wore their hair in ceremonial ponytails. They snapped out the K Motion and the Half High V, spelled Poway, leapt alone and in silence, did the splits in silence, said, Go! Woo! and All right! They held up happy-face signs for each other that said “Good Job Girls” and “We Want Teeth.” Two girls cried midcheer, including one who turned her ankle on a leap and one who forgot the steps to the Poway fight song, a cheerful, old-fashioned jig punctuated with the words “Fight! Fight! Fight!” Their X jumps and left kicks were judged by girls slightly older than they— former cheerleaders who measured and assigned point value to their sparkle, control, sharpness, recovery, and audience appeal. Then the girls got the news, good or bad, in a self-addressed stamped envelope.
Sometimes the news was good for themselves and bad for friends. “Like, my freshman year,” a junior named Kelly-Ann told me, “I wanted to try out, but I wasn’t really sure or whatever and then [my friend] wanted to try out so I was, like, ‘Okay, we’ll try out together,’ and we both made it, and then we both tried out again this year. I made it and she didn’t.” Kelly-Ann’s voice dropped. “It’s hard,” she said.
Kelly-Ahn is taking honors algebra next year, and that, along with biology and chorus, is her favorite class. Kim, who competes with the diving club, will take honors English and advanced placement French. Allison will take four AP classes — history, English, calculus, and physics — while continuing to play the harp with the San Diego Youth Symphony. Allison’s parents didn’t want her to be a cheerleader, so she cheered as a freshman and then didn’t try out again until this year, when she told her parents, “It’s my senior year. I should have fun.” Allison is as thin as an egret. When she touches her toes, she flies up in a perihelion that makes her legs look like wings and her feet look like white feathers. Her only sister became a doctor at 23, and academics are the priority, she says, in her family.
Some girls have memorized whole scenes from the movie Clueless. Two said their early role models were the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders. They like Kafka’s story “The Metamorphosis,” marine biology, Mary Higgins Clark, The Diary of Anne Frank, The Great Gatsby, The Scarlet Letter, and Chicken Soup for the Soul. Lena was a ballet dancer for ten years and plans to study premed. Erin wants to study international business law.
All the girls, whatever their GPA, use the vernacular of their age. They turn “like,” “whatever,” and “totally” into the rhythmic K Motions and Half High Vs of speech. Things they love are cool and awesome. They talk as they move: alike. The lure of cheerleading is to become the cogs of a bright machine, to lose yourself in arms and legs moving in time to arms and legs. When I asked girls why they tried out for cheerleading, I expected to hear that they liked dancing, tumbling, and leaping, since the pleasure they take in these things is visible. But their first response was friendship — the acquisition of 31 constant friends.
Some of the girls who made it have been cheering half their lives. “I was in Pop Warner for, like, seven years,” says Jessica, a sophomore whose GPA is 3.8. Pop Warner, the largest youth organization in the country, supplies its little league football teams with age-appropriate cheerleaders, who line up in a row the first day and are chosen for promptness, not skill — the first 100 make it, a girl told me. For the veteran Pop Warner girls, the major difference in high school cheerleading is the stunts.
“When I was trying out my freshman year,” Jessica says, “we were trying stunts, and I fell off a stunt.” Jessica was the top girl, or flyer, and the girl who was supposed to spot her was inexperienced. “So I fell completely on my arm and it broke and I had surgery and it was a major catastrophe.”
But Jessica is still cheering, and she likes stunts, she says, when she doesn’t fall. So, it would appear, do 98-pound Tera, 78-pound Natalie, and the girls who have prior injuries, like Lena, who suffered stress fractures in ballet, and Melodie, a gymnast who’s had orthoscopic surgery on her knee. “I quit ice skating to make Poway High cheer,” a varsity girl named Shannon said. “I quit everything that I had for cheerleading.” As stunts and tumbling acts make cheerleading more difficult (in some squads, every member can do a standing back flip), the sideshow has taken center stage. UCA holds 53 regional competitions that attract some 40,000 competitors. Of those 40,000, about 5000 will cheer in the Indiana Jones theater at Disneyworld for the title of national champion. When-UCA’s rival, the National Cheerleading Association, held its all-star competition in Dallas last year, 4000 cheerleaders screamed, bounced, and flipped for the honor of wearing the NCA championship jacket.
Stunts have also given cheerleaders the trophy of pain. On the third day of camp, a boy from basketball camp said to a cheerleader in a skirt, “Why do you have to come to camp to be a cheerleader? All ya gotta do is say, ‘Go, fight, win.’ ”
Had the girl been 25, she could have pointed out what a lousy flirting technique this was. But she was in the midst of, not the observation of, her life. “It’s more than that,” she said defensively. “We’ve had two broken arms so far.”
Actually, no one broke an arm at the Irvine camp, and despite rumors that spread like the Wave across Mesa Court Field, no one snapped a neck. But at 1:00 p.m. on Saturday, when the sun was high and 700 shoulders were starting to burn, we were on our way to three ambulance rides, four hospital visits, a gross of plastic ice packs, a dislocation, miles of tape, and a few busted lips. We were also in the midst of literal cheering, which is, and always has been, rhythmic sound and nonsense. The guy on the bandstand claps and says, “O-la, o-la ay!” and we, like God’s faithful, return, “O-la, o-la ay!”
The coaches, meanwhile, were sitting on the fringes of the grass, where paper cups and Popsicle sticks washed up like driftwood among the gym bags and video cameras. All the coaches I met were cheerleaders once, and most were female. Julie Brown, the cheer coach at Santa Fe Christian in Solana Beach, used to coach at Carlsbad, where one of her squads was fifth in the nation. Her daughter Tobie, who came with her to camp, cheered for Carlsbad, played soccer and basketball in college, and now coaches girls’ basketball at Santa Fe. Jennifer York, the present coach of Carlsbad,
coaches seven squads, including a show squad of 20 girls. For her attendance at camp, five practices a week, and games, York is paid a total stipend of $ 1500 a year. Cheerleading may be expensive, but it’s not because the coaches are high paid.
Coach Evi Yarnell-Valles has been teaching P.E. at Poway High School for 22 years and taking care of its cheerleaders for 19. She coaches the girls’ tennis team and has earned, between the courts and the practice field, the deep dark tan of athletic life. She was a cheerleader in San Bernardino when she was the age of these girls, then she cheered at San Diego State, but nothing about her would reveal this. Golf pro, you might guess in a game of “What’s My Line?” Valles is handsome in a sensible, ream-you-in-ten-nis way. She owns 23 pairs of sneakers. She wears immaculate baseball caps, sweat suits, tennis shorts, and T-shirts. She married her husband, a Poway High School football and baseball coach, in 1994, and they have no children. “These are our children,” she told me in the Poway gym one night when she was going on her 12th straight hour of school duties and still had a varsity game and a complicated halftime show to go. She didn’t look tired. She looked unflappable, wJiich is what, after four almost sleepless days with her at camp, I would say she is.
At camp, Valles has to be unflapped by the presence of several hundred Los Angeles high school boys attending football camp. They hide in the bushes, loiter by the exits, dial the dorm phones, and remove window screens. But there’s nothing a boy or girl would do that Valles hasn’t already thought of, seen, and planned for. Boys, even large, mean boys, are dispatched. Girls are reminded to travel in threes (“two to fight him off and one to run for help”). Her instructions to the girls are informed by historical precedent (“no shaving cream fights,” she tells them the first night, “and no trashing of each other’s rooms”). It’s only June, but her daybook contains the dates and times of fall football games and tennis matches. She can tell you the function of every color-coded key on her interlocking set of key rings, from the badminton cabinet to the thermostat in the aerobics room. She came to camp with an extra black rubber ring to put on the key that opens the outer door of the dorm so she could distinguish it from the key that opens her room. The rest of us just try both keys every time.
On a good day, the girls eat Starbursts and apply sunscreen and make chummy, encouraging missives for their secret squads and build shaky, collapsing pyramids and try out for all-stars and learn four different dances and four different cheers and eat more Star-bursts. A bad day is just like a good day except that 12 hours of leaping, collapsing, dancing, and balancing are followed, in a moment of twilight mayhem, by a girl who comes running up to Valles and says, “Mrs. Valles, I think Kristin may have broken her arm!” and while Kristin is sobbing with pain, six other girls start sobbing with fear that it’s their fault for dog-piling. They cry as if Kristin will be paralyzed from the neck down. For the first time in all her years at camp, Valles has to take a girl to the hospital.
“Adolescents are very emotional,” Valles tells me after it turns out that Kristin has a second-degree strain, not a broken arm. “If one starts crying, you can follow it down the line.”
Whether it’s a good day or a bad day, Valles and her fellow chaperone Diann Edens get up at 6:00 and go to bed between 1:00 and 2:00 am. She and Diann make sure the girls are in the dorm by 9:00 p.m., on their floor by 10:00, in their rooms by 1060, and at 11:00 they knock on doors and take a stroll outside to see if all the lights are out. Eleven o’clock is also the hour Valles becomes the squad’s postal service, picking up and delivering the multicolored letters girls write to their secret sisters every night at camp. (Cheerleaders appear to do the opposite of hazing. Each varsity girl is assigned a junior varsity girl to befriend via daily letters. The exchange continues on a less frequent basis until Christmas, when the name— usually already guessed — is formally revealed during a gift exchange.)
During the day, when the girls are in stunt class, dance class, cheer class, and tumbling class, Evi Valles and Diann Edens attend seminars on stunt spotting, public relations, and that most important of modem skills, legal self-defense. These seminars are taught by Les Stella, the 30-year-old head of the UCA staff and coach of an all-girl squad in Germantown, Tennessee, that goes to nationals every year and tends to place in the top five in the junior high, JV, and varsity divisions. Stella looks like a cross between a missionary and a tennis player, and if anyone could convert the cheerless, he could. He refers to women as ladies and addresses them as ma’am. Like his staff, he’s paid to be funny, but unlike them, he’s in charge of a 13-hour daily schedule that’s timed down to the Popsicle breaks. This gives him a harried look.
On the second day of camp, just before the ambulances start wailing toward Mesa Court Field, Stella leads coaches through a chapter in the manual called “Cheerleading Safety from a Legal Standpoint.” To emphasize the threat of litigation, Stella tells the story of a girl who loved cheerleading camp so much that she invited her squad over for a swimming party the next day.
“What do the kids do in the pool?” Stella asks.
“Stunts,” a coach guesses. Stella nods and says, “Basket toss goes up. Nobody gets hurt. The girl gets cut by a fingernail. Not that big a deal. But you don’t always know what the parents are going to do.” The girl whose face was cut by a fingernail had dreamed of becoming a supermodel, so her parents sued the school, the sponsor, and the athletic director for the earning power she’d lost due to their negligence. “And won,” Stella says. “Yes, ma’am.”
Stella goes on to say that coaches must, to protect themselves in court, document everything they do to promote safety. They should post a warning about the dangers of cheerleading, devise and practice an emergency plan, and spend two weeks at the start of every year on “readiness testing.”
“Another thing,” he says, “is how you react to an injury. Let's say you have a girl who breaks an ankle. If you just say, ‘Go to the hospital, call your parents from the hospital,’ and you never call her, you never talk to the parents, you never check up on her, they’re going to sue. They’re going to say, ‘This coach doesn’t even care about my kid.’ ”
A cell phone is the best way to prevent hysteria. If you send a kid to call the parents, he says, she might, as one of his cheerleaders did, blurt, “Something happened to Katie!” and neglect to explain that Katie has broken her pinkie, not her neck.
But parental hysteria is less dangerous than squad hysteria.
“Let’s say you’ve got a girl with a broken leg,” he says. “What do you want? A girl with a broken leg or a girl with a broken leg hyperventilating and going into shock?” If you dash off to use the phone, he says, the kids may panic and shriek, “Oh my God! You’re going to die!” and then you’re going to have a girl in shock.
The hysteria factor is a good reason, Stella says, to drill your squad twice a year on the emergency plan, which gives each squad member an assignment — to wait for the ambulance in the parking lot, say, or hold the door for the paramedic. “Make a copy of your emergency plan,” Stella tells the coaches, “and give it to your athletic director.” Stella says he follows all of this advice in Germantown, where he’s paid not by the school district but by the parents of the cheerleaders.
“If I ever go to court,” he says, “believe me, I’ve got my ducks in a row.”
Les Stella, like the other coaches and instructors at camp, used to be a high school cheerleader. He went to an all-boys Catholic school in New Orleans where the cheerleaders were recruited from nearby schools. His junior year, he trained with the karate team, and when some girls from the cheerleading squad noticed him sparring with a friend, they saw potential in his sharp arm movements. But the girls didn’t say that at first, Stella explains. “What they did was come up and ask us if we wanted to stunt with girls. If we wanted to lift girls over our heads. We’re, like, ‘Of course we do.’ ”
Stella attended cheerleading camp that summer, traveled with the UCA staff the following summer, and then cheered for the University of Alabama, where he earned a B.A. in business. Stella has been cheering or coaching cheerleading nonstop since high school, traveling beyond the hotbeds of cheerleading (which he says are San Diego, Memphis, and Lexington, Kentucky) to foreign posts. “We also,” he says, “have UCA Japan. We do work in Costa Rica. We do some work in London. We do some work in Germany.” Because cheerleading in America has evolved from mere shouting to a national folk dance, the idea of training Germans and Costa Ricans to spell VERTEIDIGUNG and DEFENSA in short skirts may seem akin to the exportation of tractor pulls. “ Rhythmical cheering has been developed to its greatest extent in America in the college yells,” explained the Encyclopedia Britannica of 1910-11, “which may be regarded as a development of the primitive war cry; this custom has no real analog at English schools and universities, but the New Zealand football team in 1907 familiarized English crowds at their matches with a similar sort of war cry adopted from the Maoris.”
English girls may not have adopted Maori war cries but they did take to hurling sticks — “they have more baton twirlers than anything else,” Stella says. The Japanese show the most promise so far. They work right through water breaks at camp and send exhibition squads to nationals, where this year “they actually were the groundbreakers on a stunt,” Stella says. Perhaps if cheerleading catches on in Japan, we can call it even — karaoke for boogie chants.
When I ask Stella if he ever encounters snobbery about cheerleading, he says he’s never not run into snobbery. “I would say 75 percent of the people say, ‘What in the world are you talking about?’ And then, you know, they see it on TV or they get to experience part of it, and they’re enthralled by it. They love it.” The other 25 percent contend that cheerleading won’t take the kids anywhere. “A lot of this,” he says, “comes from coaches — football coaches, female volleyball and softball coaches who want these kids
working for them, you know, on their team.”
Perhaps this is because soccer, volleyball, basketball, and softball give female athletes the dignity, if not the attention, of male athletes. Beside these team sports (and cheering has, of course, been literally beside team sports for decades), cheerleading seems too enthusiastic, too concerned with the success of others, too overtly sexual, and above all, too hysterical. Boys who cheer must fight the stereotype that cheerleading is feminine, and girls who cheer must fight the stereotype that cheerleading is absurdly feminine, or, as most girls I talked to put it, that cheerleaders are sluts and bimbos. Men’s sports are sponsored by beer companies, but cheerleading competitions are sponsored by Stayfree, Rave hair products, Johnson’s Clean & Clear, and Caress.
Still, cheerleading may take kids somewhere. In 1991, 85 colleges offered cheerleading scholarships that ranged from $100 stipends to full-tuition grants, and that’s mostly due to the incorporation of school spirit, which began in 1948 when Lawrence Herkimer (inventor of the pompom and a jump called the herkie) founded the company that would become the National Cheerleading Association. UCA was formed in 1974 when Herkimer’s protege, Jeff Webb, left the NCA because he felt that cheerleading, to become modern, must be more acrobatic. According to Sports Illustrated, it was Webb who taught difficult stunts and pyramids to college squads, organized college and high school championships, and persuaded ESPN to televise them for the first time in 1983.
Webb is still president and CEO of the Varsity Spirit Corporation, which Ls based in Memphis. Besides running camps, Varsity manufactures uniforms and the jackets, shorts, sports bras, caps, sweatshirts, and T-shirts that are sold to cheerleaders through its 176-page catalog and the very popular “camp store.” Because Varsity also promotes the competitions that are the ultimate venue for the skills taught at camp, the company provides the occasion for the clothes and the clothes for the occasion. (“Do U know what to pack for camp?” asks a brochure sent to every camper. “Find it all right here.” The brochure points out that Varsity is the “official uniform choice of the UCA staff’ without pointing out that Varsity owns UCA.)
Varsity employed 1789 people in 1995, when annual sales were $75.5 million. In the same year, a Tampa newspaper ranked Varsity one of six smart investments because “earnings have grown at more than 50 percent a year.” In 1996, Forbes ranked Varsity 115th among the 200 best small companies, and in May of this year, Riddell Sports, Inc., a company best known for its football helmets, acquired Varsity for $91 million. Varsity shares promptly jumped 28 percent.
Stella believes that competitions have changed cheerleading for the better. “Nationals, I think, is what drives kids to become cheerleaders. You can have an unstructured program, and you don’t compete, you don’t do anything, the kids are finished for the year, and the kids are, like, ‘Oh, that was fun.’ They may do it again, they may not. Squads that compete nationally, you’ll see the same kids every year, because kids,don’t understand it or don’t know it, and they’ll fight you every minute of the day on it, but kids love discipline.”
It costs about $1000 a year to be a cheerleader at a school like Poway. The cost of being a cheerleader who competes can hit $5000, and on Stella’s squad, it’s close to $2000. But “when it’s the end of the year,” Stella says, “they feel like they’ve done something. Not just, ‘Oh well, I put on a skirt and cheered at a game.’ ”
The Easdake cheerleaders, besides being the only coed squad at camp, are black-haired and brown-skinned, a rarity not just in San Diego but in the whole country. Les Stella says that he sees few black or Hispanic cheerleaders, perhaps because cheering is seen as a white activity. “I think it’s a lack of role models,” he says.
Sheldon Price, Eastlake’s coach, is black. He started gymnastics when he was six and dance lessons at ten. When he was a junior at Mount Miguel in Spring Valley, the cheer squad recruited him for his tumbling skills, which they hoped would aid them in competitions. Price went to a practice, talked it over with his mom, went to another practice, and was coaxed into doing a leap called a toe touch. “I did it,” Price says, “and the girls were just, like, ‘Oh my God!
Wow! You have to [cheer].”’ Finally, Price consented, and “I started learning how to stunt.” “I’m small now,” Price says, “short, but I was thinner back then, and a lot of the girls didn’t like to go way up there [in stunts].” The girls persuaded five more guys to join the squad, and Price, who wasn’t afraid of heights, “learned how to fly.” From Mount Miguel, Price went to Palomar College, where “the girls fly and the guys are the stunters” and where he still coaches. At Palomar, and later at UCLA and UC Riverside, Price took biology courses and earned his B.A. “I’ve always wanted to be a dentist,” he says, and although Eastlake would like him to teach in the science department, he may save teaching for later. “Like, after I get tired of being a dentist,” he says, “I can go teach biology — it’s something I can retire with. The kids are my first love, so I’ll relate with them just like I do now, even when I’m 30,000 years old.”
Price, like Les Stella, is currently paid by the parents. “I get $25 per kid per month,” he says. For this fee, he runs practices every day after school from 4:00 to 7:30, with dancers coming on Tuesdays and Thursdays and cheerleaders coming the other three days. Although some schools pay a professional choreographer as much as $1000 to design three one-minute competition routines, Price doesn’t think it would be fair to charge parents for something he can do himself. “I just do everything— the choreography, the music...I’m lying in bed and I’m doing routines in my head.” After three years of coaching, Price has decided that only his varsity squads should compete. “What I find,” he says, “is that coming into high school, the kids are already trying to change and adapt to high school as well as stay on top of grades and be a competitive cheer squad. And the thing with [Eastlake] varsity is, because they are coed, they’re known, and let’s say the realm of competition is getting more and more important and more stressful.”
Eastlake, which graduated its third senior class this year, has never been to nationals. Price says the program is building toward that, and he didn’t want to try too soon. “It’s a lot of money to go clear to Orlando,” he says, “plus hotel expenses, and if I don’t think we’re going to place, let’s say, within the top five, I don’t want to spend that money.”
Of all the squads on the field, Eastlake is the most intense. When the trophies are passed out on Tuesday, they’ll receive the 110 Percent award and Best All Around. They’ll still be practicing after the Camp Champ competition is over and everyone else is grabbing a friend and saying, “Mom, take our picture.” Under the hot sun of Sunday and Monday, they huddle up, bend over, and labor to lift a girl and hold her straight up in a pose called Liberty. The sweating boys look, in their crew cuts and loose, knee-length shorts, like boxers or skateboarders, but on the field they’re trampolines, springboards, nets, and stairs. Red-haired, bespectacled Jason holds his folded arms out like a genie and trembles while a girl stands on his elbows and crosses her arms in the same way.
“Hollow out,” a staff cheerleader tells the boys. He’s the one who can lift a girl with one hand, so they listen. “Squeeze with your abs.”
Their faces are grave like the faces of gymnasts who’ve just been told go out and win it for their country.
“In the past,” Sheldon Price told me, “I’ve had, like, six guys that were former gang members. In that area [Chula Vista] they’ve got gangs and stuff, and they just happened to be with a girlfriend or somebody and they end up — I guess maybe it caught their eye. But they did come over and they just started.” Although most of the cheerleaders here are giddy from dawn to midnight, two boys on the Eastlake squad look isolated and withdrawn during an evening game that requires them to mime trees, tornadoes, and a house with their limbs while Les Stella narrates a story about Dorothy on her way to Oz. While the girls all around them throw up their arms, giggle, and form a tree together, touching one another with joking ease, the boys stand aloof. They look faintly aghast, as if they’d wandered into the Oz of cheerleading and aren’t sure how to leave.
But when Eastlake builds human towers with its girls, the boys lose this physical shyness. They must, to be a team, touch girls in workmanlike but intimate ways. When their hands support a girl in the splits, they hold her in spots necessarily close to the meeting point of her naked thighs. When they catch a girl they’ve thrown into the air, they touch her just about everywhere, especially when they’re still learning to catch her properly. In the all-girl groups, this is cause for joking — “I always grab your boob. Sorry!” For males, this commerce with the female form is a suitably macho reason for being a cheerleader, one they tend to use in public: “Hey, I’m throwing around a beautiful girl,” a male cheerleader for the Kansas City Chiefs tells scoffers, “and you’re up there in the stands with your beer.”
There’s something primitive about men hoisting babes, but inciting a crowd is nothing if not primitive. In ancient Rome, Nero employed 5000 soldiers to cheer for him when he performed in amateur theatricals. At American high schools, screaming girls celebrate boy athletes called Trojans, Vikings, Pirates, and Panthers. They make banners that say, “Davis can save us” and “John’s the Bomb.” They pound megaphones in a drumbeat on the floor. Lifting up bodies is the corporeal expression of the same wish — to be larger by being one—and to see the Eastlake boys lift up female bodies with detachment and reserve, to see them think of the girls, in those moments at least, as members of a team instead of objects of desire, is almost as marvelous as the feats themselves.
Jason, 17, is the tallest boy on the Eastlake squad, and he’s considering a career in law enforcement. He used to play strong guard for Morris High, and although football was, he says, “real difficult,” he finds
cheerleading more difficult, and that’s what attracted him when he saw his first tryout last year. Jason wears glasses on and off the field, and this enhances the look of tremendous concentration he wears while the team is performing. “I run all the routines through my head over and over to get it right,” he says, and although cheerleaders are supposed to do something called “facials” while they dance (these range from bawdy winks to faux, open-mouthed glee), the boys are spared this degradation, and, given a choice, I’d rather watch Jason counting in his head. Monday night, Jason will be one of about 20 cheerleaders to compete in all-star tryouts, which decide who’ll be invited to march in the Lord Mayor of Westminster’s parade in London on New Year’s Day. Another senior on the squad will make it, but Jason won’t, which I can’t help thinking is too bad. What better way to start the new year than to see the genie-on-a-genie stunt that makes Jason look like a red-haired Atlas, supporting the world on his folded arms?
“Some people, you know, they’ll call the guys ‘cheer queers,’ ” he says. “You’ve got to shake it off and go on with it.” Sometimes Jason will point out, if the mocking persists, that he played football for Morris, but he’s always refused to fight.
“I decided that when I started high school,” he says. “In junior high I used to get in a lot of fights. I used to have a short temper. I had to learn to control it, and I had the opportunity to learn that. It shows a bigger man not to fight.”
The first ambulance reached Mesa Court Field just before 10:00 a.m. on Sunday. It was a bright, cool morning that started with a bit of friendly hazing. The JV girls from Poway came to breakfast at 6:45 with swimsuits over their clothes and FROSH written in lipstick across their cheeks. “I love you guys,” a varsity girl observed. “You are so cute.” The Eastlake girls corseted each other into their school T-shirts, sucking in while a girl knotted the shirt in back. The girls of Santa Fe Christian wore red scriptures on their gray T-shirts — a.passage from Psalms for UNITY, from Timothy for SPIRIT, and Ephesians for EXCELLENCE.
Along the perimeter of the field, where the eucalyptus trees had begun to look like tall girls on pyramids, squads in school colors were practicing their stunts. Girls went up unsteadily, cast shadows, and dropped, sometimes in a heap that slapped like pizza dough. The Poway squads were falling less often and less crazily, and their moves had begun to have a stretchy ease. Natalie, the smallest of all 32, was so easy to lift that the girls started joking, “Hey, Natalie, can we play with you?” After a demonstration of a stunt in which one spotter had to lift a girl by the posterior, the girls broke into their teams and one said gamely, “I want to be the butt holder.”
Then, on the edge of things, the fire engine came. The firemen, like the girls, wore uniforms in primary colors. They strode across the grass in heavy boots and carried big black metal boxes. The fire engine was red and enormous, as red as the shorts of Santa Fe Christian School, and the ambulance that followed was clean and white. While two men rolled a stretcher across the grass, a girl from a
small Christian school was sitting alone at the edge of the field, nursing her wrist with an ice pack. “She was stunting,” she said when I asked what happened, “and someone landed on her neck.” The stretcher came because “the trainers think her neck is broken.”
This was, like most rumors, only partly true. “She was basing for the Liberty,” a trainer told me, which means she was the bottom part of the statue, and “a butt hit her head,” ramming her chin to her chest. Since trainers aren’t authorized to diagnose, any sign of a neck injury means a call to the paramedics, a trip to the hospital, and a doctor’s opinion, which would, in this case, be that the girl was fine. Meanwhile, cheerleaders and coaches would continue — some until nightfall — to think the girl’s neck was broken.
At 11:00, the Poway girls moved to transition class, which teaches the skill of doing two stunts in a row with a transitional move in between. Supported by two men, staff member Kelly became a human pair of scissors, opening her legs to the right, and then going elastically up and back down into a split with her left. “She’s so cute,” a Poway girl said. (If, at county high school football
games, you observe that the cheerleaders are lifting a thumb and pinkie instead of all five fingers when they scream “Woo,” you can chalk it up to cute Kelly from Hawaii, who became the icon of “woo” with this gesture.)
The next stunt turned the top girl, Reyna this time, into a spinning ballerina. She turned while she ascended and was planted in an upright, elevated
pose. “I think she’s so pretty,’ a girl said. “She’s really muscley.” At 11:30, during the demonstration of more transition stunts, Les Stella warned the cheerleaders, “Do not try, do not try a full twist without a staff member present.” The full twist was demonstrated again, and it’s a beautiful little pasta move, a rotini curl in the air. “The tighter you are,” Stella said, “the faster you’ll spin.”
The show squad from Carlsbad could already do the full twist. They did it flexibly, elastically, as if they’d done it a hundred times, and they had, in fact, been training for two weeks. But beyond them, in another squad, a girl was down. At 11:37 a.m., the fire engine rolled up again, and out hopped two yellow-trousered men in blue shirts, the same men who came an hour and a half ago. They strode across the sunny field in what looked like exasperation. They were followed by medics from an identical ambulance, with an identical stretcher, but this didn’t noticeably affect the 11:45 stampede to lunch — by then the girls had learned that the cafeteria gets crowded fast. This time, a departing fireman took the opportunity to speak his mind. “Seems to me you oughtta have mats out here,” he told a trainer before he stalked away.
“I’ll call ’em seven times if I have to,” the trainer told Les Stella.
Seven wouldn’t be necessary, but Kristin of Poway would go to the hospital in Evi Valles’s car at nightfall, and a third ambulance would come the next morning before anyone had breakfast, giving Stella quite a few rumors to dispel in Monday’s coaching seminar.
At the seminar, Stella begins with a little background. “The last time I saw an ambulance at one of my camps,” he says, “was three years ago at LSU, which was a severe injury and we needed an ambulance for that.” It was all-star night at camp, Stella explains, which in the South is a big deal, and 1000 parents joined 750 cheerleaders to watch the tryouts. During what Stella calls a completely controlled stunt, one girl continued to twist as she fell, and her broken arm was pinned under her body in such a way that she couldn’t be moved without extreme pain. An EMT was summoned to put an IV in her. “We had to be dead silent for an hour,” Les says. “Talk about a lull in the camp.”
People in the stands were saying that the girl was paralyzed. She waved her good arm as they moved her off the field so that everyone would know she was all right, and Les told the crowd it wasn’t as bad as they feared. He does the same thing this morning in the coaches’ seminar. “This morning,” he says, “I don’t know if/all know, a kid went to the hospital in the ambulance.” This accident, however, happened in the dorm. “She forgot she was at camp on the top bunk,” he says, “reached out of bed to stop her alarm, and fell on her head. I just got the assessment. They checked out her head, her back, and her toe. Her head and back are fine. She broke her toe.”
Then he runs down the other injuries. “So far, out of all this commotion,” he says, we have a broken pinkie (the result of a back handspring in the path of a small hole) and a broken toe. “The girl with the neck?” he says. “She’s okay. She’s back. The girl with the ribs? She’s fine. The ribs are fine. She came back on crutches with a sprained ankle.” Stella pauses when the coaches look confused and jokes, “That’s a mighty long rib you have there.” While the trainers were assisting her, he explains, “she never said one word about her ankle hurting, but I talked to her coach, and [the coach] said she pulls this stuff all the time—she’s one of those kids.”
To put the ambulance runs in a still larger perspective, the Consumer Product Safety Commission estimated that in 1994, 15,792 emergency room admissions were the result of cheer-leading injuries, and in 1995, that figure climbed to 16,982. American Sports Data puts the number of Americans who are cheerleaders or who tried out for cheerleading at 3.6 million, which, if true, indicates an injury rate of plus or minus 0.4 percent. The rate of injury for football in 1994 was 2.7 percent, and for basketball it was 2.5 percent. That means you’re roughly six times more likely to hurt yourself playing basketball and almost seven times more likely to hurt yourself playing football than while cheering on the sidelines. The accident rate for cheerleaders who perform stunts, however, was not available.
The two most serious accidents in cheerleading occurred in 1986, four years after the University of Nebraska banned cheerleader pyramids because of liability concerns. Both accidents involved college students, who are typically permitted to do more dangerous stunts. In the first, a North Dakota State cheerleader attempted a dismount from the top of a pyramid that was three persons high. Something went wrong, and she fell. When she struck the bare field-house floor, she suffered multiple skull fractures and died of massive brain injuries.
The same year and only a week later, a 22-year-old male cheerleader at the University of Kentucky, which has won more national championships than any other college, was paralyzed from the neck down after a flip from a minitrampoline. The cheerleader, who was described by his coach as one of the most highly skilled gymnasts in the nation, told an AP reporter that he did one and a half flips instead of the single flip he planned and landed on the back of his neck.
The University of Kentucky subsequently banned the use of minitrampolines and pyramids that are three persons high, and colleges that compete in nationals may only do pyramids that are two and a half persons high.
According to the guidelines the UCA distributed at its Irvine camp, cheerleaders in junior high and high school are limited to stunts that are no higher than two persons (the bottom person must have at least one foot on the ground) and no minitrampolines are allowed. The list contains 27 rules in all, and it regulates cradle dismounts, backward dismounts, and the number and position of spotters. It prohibits dive rolls and something ominously named the helicopter toss. Nowhere does it mention the danger of using the word “like” more than four times in a single sentence.
Although every coach I talked to, including coaches who are just 23 years old, said that cheerleading has become more complicated and acrobatic since they were in high school, Stella says it has also become safer through regulation. “When I started years ago,” he says, “there were no rules on what you could do, and we were doing some crazy stunts. Two guys are on the other two guys in a shoulder stand. And then they’d have a girl do a basket toss on them. So this girl was going ungodly heights, and one guy was catching her. Now in high school, you’ve got to have three catchers. The rules and regulations that have come down — as a coach you feel that they’re putting a bind on you, but yet, when you stop and think about it, it’s for the right reason.” Some coaches, Stella says, “go forward. Some of them break the rules.”
In the afternoon of the third day, Stella teaches a course in spotting the stunts we’ve been watching all weekend. It’s like being in the magician’s tent and hearing how he saws the lady in half. His assistants act out his commands, showing where to put the toe, the knee, the hip, and the waist to form the shapes that the kids outside labor to copy as a child labors to write.
“When she jumps into their hands,” he says, “it should be like there are eggs there she’s trying not to crush.”
Sometimes, Stella’s secrets have a Taoist ring. The last place you want weight is where it's going to end up. Don’t do what comes natural — if you ’re doing what’s natural, you 're doing what’s wrong.
By that he means the instinct of self-preservation works against acrobats. The instinct to move away from a falling object, and thus save yourself, must be replaced with the instinct of moving toward a falling person and saving her life.
“It’s natural to run away,” Stella says. “So when you have a new kid on your squad, an extension goes up and falls, the natural reaction is to what? Get out of the way. Not to step underneath and catch somebody. That’s our job. To teach them.” At a cheerleading competition, he says, you can tell who’s been cheerleading for a while. They’re the ones who instinctively jump forward when someone on a television screen or a distant stage falls. “And that’s what we want to get the kids doing. It’s not gonna happen if you say, ‘Go spot that extension,’ and then a 100-pound girl falls on her. It’s not natural for her to stay there and catch her.” But it isn’t enough, Stella says, for the girls on the bottom to remain poised underneath. The top girl in the stunt will instinctively bend her legs if the balance begins to tip. “They can’t do that if they want to be good,” he says. “If they want to be good, they’ve gotta learn technique, how to stay tight, stay super-tight, and pull up, always stay up as tall as possible.” Stella compares the top girl to a broomstick balanced in an open hand. “You be tight,” he says to the imaginary broomstick. “I’m balancing you.”
Beyond that, coaches must, he emphasizes, teach falling girls to stay tight. “You teach her,” he says, “how to fall.”
Tuesday is the hottest, and last, day of camp. It’s been 18 hours since I realized I have no further interest in pom dancing, that if I see one more pom dance or boogie chant my head will be completely filled with lines like chick-a-boom, chick-a-boom, but it’s too late really, chick-a-boom, chick-a-boom. It’s been 18 hours since I fell asleep mid-day beneath a ceiling pummeled by $66 Nike Air Tumble Low shoes, by a nearby table saw that sounded, for a moment, exactly like the distant scream of cheerleaders. On Mesa Court Field the squads are dressed for Camp Champ competition. The trophy table by the grandstand resembles an architect’s model of New York City. Girls who were dropping fliers like soft ice cream cones are now raising them in elastic unison. The coach from El Cajon’s Granite Hills High School turns her voice into a metronome, and the girls scurry, lift, tumble, leap. They do their facials as they dance: the overly closed mouth, the overly surprised mouth, the mock smirk, the come-and-get-me, the mock wink, the sideways look of expectation, the brow-wrinkler, and the eye squinch. The ground between the two grandstands is muddy and ripped. “Ride it, Alisa,” says the coach from Clairemont’s Horizon Christian; and two girls hold Alisa stiff and solid above their heads. By 9:30 the field is aswarm with parents holding video cameras and sun umbrellas.
“L-O-V-E”shouts a squad. “We love, we love our Varsi-tee!”
The Poway squad waits in the heat beside the Carlsbad squad, which isn’t wearing skirts. They’re still wearing black shorts and sports bras that make them look like volleyball players who serve and set people instead of round leather balls. The morning wears on through the dancer drill-down, a military exercise in which girls compete to see who can execute a series of commands without hesitation or fumbling. A slowly dwindling army performs the left face! ready front! hand salute! dress right! a-ten hut! moves of drill-team dancing on pulverized, mud-colored grass.
At last, the trophies and gold stars are given, all-star winners are announced, and girls clutch each other for a photograph, just one more, one more, then another. The photographs taken at cheerleading camp could be lined up to reach the moon.
“The Houston parade invites.. .Jessica of Red Mountain!” “The London parade invites... Megan of Carlsbad!”
Months ago, on the leafy green morning of tryouts at Poway, I talked to girls who had left high school and cheered in college.
“It wasn’t fun,” one of them told me. “I thought, like, the girls in high school were all my good friends. I hung out with them, like, every weekend, every night. I was on the phone with them every day, and you go to college and cheer just had practices. Usually we’d practice and never talk to each other. Nobody goes out. I’d thought, ‘I’m going to make my lifelong friends in college through cheer,’ and I wasn’t, so...” What about camp? I asked. “Camp was fun,” she said. “I thought camp was fun.” “It’s, like, one of the best things,” another one said.
Back at Irvine, on the very edge of the drill-worn field, three preteen girls do a cheer they must have learned in Pop Warner. They don’t have uniforms yet,
and they cheer facing the bumpers of cars. A girl who looks to be 3 years old wears a vest that says “SFC” for Santa Fe Christian and a white cheerleading skirt like a muffin cup liner. Beside the long-limbed girls in white skirts she might be the smallest figure in a set of nesting dolls. The sun is painful and the sky is white. She sits back down in her stroller, leans her head back, and waits to be thirteen.